Riff Raff

Tommy, Can You MP3 Me? Now that it's been nearly two decades since the industry has introduced a new format for recorded music, it's obviously high time for the music companies to make sure you have a fresh need to repurchase Sgt. Pepper now that you've finished filling out your CD collection. The truth about the next level of music formatting -- or at least a version of it -- comes in the pages of "Music's Online Future," a white paper on the Internet's growing role in music sales and distribution over the next 10 years.

The report, researched by the Santa Cruz-based Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA) and sponsored by tech-minded folks at Lucent Technologies, Digidesign, AboveNet, and Webnoize, is the result of interviews with 45 record label executives, analysts, and technology vendors. The report's executive summary -- a distillation of the complete $495 report -- says that concerns about Internet security, viable sales models, and high-speed access will fall away in the next decade. The number of U.S. households using satellite and cable-modem Internet access will grow from less than a million today to over 15 million in 2002; independent labels will own a larger part of the market share; and buying CDs online under an affordable subscription system (say, downloading two CDs a month for $25) will erase tangible music media. And those pesky MP3s, the digital-quality sound files that have recently been the bane of industry execs who like tidy distribution systems? Away with them -- at least in their current form.

Andy Atherton, vice president of strategic development at IUMA, believes the current excitement over MP3s is overstated -- and, more importantly, misguided. Calling the format "a knee-jerk that the press has seized onto," he notes that "MP3 is a great promotional tool, but we need to find a secure standard so artists can sell their music electronically. [Artists have] got to have that reward at the end of the road, or the music industry vanishes in the Net-fueled tragedy of the commons."

Fair enough; we here at Riff Raff central are big fans of musicians getting paid for their work, although the recent cease-and-desist order Public Enemy got for placing MP3 files on their Web site makes us wonder on whose terms that's going to happen. And there's also some question about whether consumers are willing to pay into the Internet-driven subscription system that "Music's Online Future" posits. What didn't make it into the generally optimistic executive summary were the results of a survey of 80 IUMA members, chosen randomly and asked if they'd participate in a CD-download-on-demand system.

Their answers -- published only in the full report -- don't exactly mirror the industry's predictions: Approximately 80 percent of those surveyed -- mostly young, mostly male, mostly buying two to three CDs a month -- rated the importance of owning a physical CD from "medium" to "very high," while over half had a "low" or "very low" interest in a download subscription system. Jim Griffin, CEO of OneHouse (a market analyst for the record industry), is a proponent of the online distribution model. He could not be reached for comment, but says one anonymous survey respondent quoted in the report: "The fetish of touch is hard to overcome. But given a better alternative we might all be persuaded. It better be good." (Mark Athitakis)

Invisibl Sightings Local turntablist collective Invisibl Skratch Piklz are breaking ground once again, but not in the sense one might expect. The Piklz have gone commercial -- literally. Although the ISP have entered into sponsorship agreements with DJ equipment makers like Shure (needles) and Vestax (turntables and mixers), creating music for commercial purposes is a new development.

Heard cutting up local and national radio airwaves in a trendy spot for Levi's is DJ Shortkut. His uncredited appearance has been the talk of Pikl fans and has surprised Pikl management. "It doesn't say who it is," says ISP management's Marlina Balandra of the ad. "But people know." Joining Shortkut as a pseudo-corporate pitchman is Q-Bert, who provides a majority of the music for the Electronic Arts video game March Madness 99. Available in January, the popular hoops contest game for Sony PlayStation offers a way to rub it in without resorting to the cliched move of running out the clock. If a participant is ahead and has achieved a particular level on the "momentum meter," then that player may choose the music -- from metal to alternative rock to hip hop.

Should fans worry that the Piklz are pimping their music to a corporate giant in Redwood City? No, says Electronic Arts' Brian Jackson. "We got the best DJs in the world for this. We just wanted Q to do what he does in his shows for the music." Contributing scratch compositions with basketball sound effects like squeaking shoes and thumping balls, the Piklz seem to have avoided any commercial pitfalls. "We really kept it true," explains Q-Bert. "There's a scratch solo on each beat."

Fans can even access a secret video of Q-Bert performing his famed "Making Me Itch" routine. Well, a formerly secret video. (Craig Smith)

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